Public Safety Center Construction

Construction is underway on the new Bozeman Public Safety Center, shown here on Aug. 20.

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The public safety center under construction in Bozeman will now include a massive solar array.

The installation is will be 252 kilowatts, which the city believes will make it the biggest building-mounted solar array in Montana. City manager Jeff Mihelich said at a recent city commission meeting that the solar project is possible because bids for the center came in under the projected budget.

The city was already planning on installing a smaller solar project, Bozeman’s sustainability program manager Natalie Meyer said Monday, and were going to prepare the building for an expanded solar array to install in the future. With extra money left in the budget, Meyer said city commissioners asked staff to find ways to make the building more sustainable. The best option was the expanded array, which is expected to provide 271 megawatt hours in its first year of production, which is a value of $23,035 in energy savings.

“What’s interesting about it is (the building) is running 24/7. It never shuts down completely so it’s always using energy,” Meyer said. “We’re quite certain that we’ll always use the energy that’s generated from the solar array.”

The budget for the installation is $296,810, Meyer said. Voters approved a bond in 2018 for the public safety center after turning down proposals in 2014 and 2016. The building is projected to cost $36.4 million, and will house the Bozeman Police Department, a fire station, municipal courts and prosecution and victim services.

Construction at the center’s location next to the Gallatin County Fairgrounds started in August and is set to finish in April 2022.

The city can’t export any energy back to the grid, a policy known as net metering, because state law limits that to solar installations under 50 kilowatts. There aren’t a lot of solar projects in the state that don’t connect to net metering, Meyer said, so they are hoping the public safety center can be an example.

“We hope we can demonstrate the viability of this type of design so that large commercial projects and large commercial buildings can look at these larger systems and recognize they don’t have to be limited by that 50-kilowatt net metering cap,” Meyer said.

Andrew Valainis, executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association, said the 50-kilowatt limit was established in a state law in 1999 and hasn’t been updated since, even as other states have substantially increased their net metering limit.

Though Valainis said the 50 kilowatt limit made sense in 1999, energy needs have changed and technology has improved since then. Efforts to change state law in the past failed, Valainis said.

The city also built storage space and electrical work into designs for the public safety center so they will be able to add battery storage in the future, Meyer said. Valainis said energy storage is expensive in Montana because the technology is new. Storage costs elsewhere in the country are more manageable, Valainis said, and it’s only a matter of time before the practice becomes cost effective in Montana.

“It would be like what solar or wind power was 20, 30, 40 years ago,” Valainis said. “We’re definitely going to get there. (Storage) is kind of the next step of the energy industry.”

Battery storage will ensure that the building will have power even if there is a power failure, Meyer said.

“We’re really interested in making this building … really efficient and resilient, so able to withstand future natural disasters and shocks and stressors,” Meyer said. “So it’s about saving energy but it’s also about being prepared for the future.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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